Laura Brownell  

What Were They Thinking?

Laura Brownell
November 23, 2019

in some fundamental principles. These are not new ideas. The AFM entered into an agreement with the National Association for Music Education (MENC) in 1947 that could be considered a decent start ( Here is a summary of the key points, updated to address current issues.

1. It is never acceptable to replace paid professionals with student performers who are either unpaid or being paid less than union scale. It harms the students who are being exploited and it harms the professionals by taking their work.

2. Music schools and “training” orchestras should not proceed with any project involving public performances by students without the approval of the local union.

3. Training orchestras that don’t pay musicians or that wish to pay musicians less than the local union scale should enter into a standing agreement with the local AFM union. The agreement will probably include a requirement that there be a real curriculum, a limit on the number of performances, and a limit on the number of years a student can participate. In other words, it should clearly be a school, not a job.

4. Any unpaid or below-scale performances by students should be clearly billed as student performances.

Let’s apply these principles to some specific circumstances and see if they get the thumbs up or thumbs down.

Harris Theater. This one is pretty clear cut. The Theater had often engaged professional musicians in the past, usually the Chicago Sinfonietta, which has a collective bargaining agreement with the CFM. The production in question was to involve paid professional dancers and stagehands. Ticket prices ranged from $45 to $95. When the union objected the Theater offered a tempting compromise involving 30 paid CFM musicians and 30 students along with a “just this once” promise. The union wisely chose to sacrifice the work for 30 people rather than allow a bad precedent to be set.

New World Symphony. This Florida-based organization could be considered the poster child for this issue. In response to grave concerns about the impact of the NWS on the classical music community in the greater Miami area, the organization has developed and maintained a long-standing relationship with the AFM. There is a written agreement between the parties, known as a “fence” agreement because it confines the NWS to certain limited activities in order to provide area professionals with some measure of protection against unfair competition by student musicians. This “fence” agreement reflects many of the fundamental principles outlined above. There is a real curriculum, which provides essential information including the role of the AFM in the lives of professional musicians. Student attendance is limited to a maximum of three years. There are limits on the number and types of performances. Professional fees must be paid for recordings.

The “fence” agreement has been place for a number of years. It is renegotiated periodically in order to give the parties an opportunity to address any mid-term problems that might arise. However, many believe that the very existence of the NWS in that part of the world continues to do irreparable harm. It is very difficult for a professional orchestra to compete for audience and resources in a community that has such a well- funded and high-profile “training” orchestra. The Fort Lauderdale-based Florida Philharmonic struggled for years and ultimately succumbed in 2003, unable to attract sufficient audience and fundraising dollars to continue. The big money was going to the NWS. It still does.

Brott National Academy Orchestra. This one is a real problem. This Hamilton, Ontario-based ensemble does not have an agreement with the AFM and is in direct competition with the local professional orchestra, the Hamilton Philharmonic. It is unacceptable for this underpaid and overworked “training” orchestra to be crowding out a professional orchestra by acting like one, i.e. producing a full season with multiple programs, selling subscriptions, and fundraising in the community. Although the BNAO has been in place for many years, it is not too late for the AFM to pursue an agreement with this organization. All that is required is a commitment to the project and the deployment of personnel with a bit of campaign experience.

Youth orchestras. Most professional musicians have fond memories of time spent performing with youth orchestras. The classic model, which is accepted by most AFM locals, is for these unpaid students to do a limited number of performances and some

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